Embracing an automated approach to dairying

Developing an automated milking system, on a bespoke dairy unit, has helped to future-proof one Shropshire-based family’s dairy business. We spoke to them to find out more.

Dairy Nutrition
Robotic Milking
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Motivated by the desire to provide new opportunities for the next generation, the Robinson family initially made the switch to robotic milking in 2021. Since then the Market Drayton based business has established a robot-ready dairy unit on a greenfield site, moved completely away from conventional milking and is currently in the process of installing its fifth Fullwood JOZ Merlin robot.

“Making the switch to robots has been really positive for both the cows and our business,” explains Richard Robinson, who farms in partnership with his sons, Henry and James, at Petsey Farm in Shropshire. “The amount of management data the system generates is staggering, and extremely useful, and the robots free up so much time that we can now spend observing the cows,” he says. “It’s no surprise that we’re picking up issues like lameness early and this allows swift intervention and improves
cow welfare.”

Building the new robotic unit has given the family scope to increase cow numbers to 300, and they are aiming to do this during the next few months. “The aim is to develop a compact, easy-to-manage and efficient dairy unit that will support the family well into the future,” adds Richard.

Milk yield

The Robinsons are currently milking 205 cows, using four Merlin robots, and achieving average yields of 10,000 litres, at 4.0% butterfat and 3.3% protein, with all milk supplied to Arla. Cow robot visits average just under three times a day.

Prior to their move to Petsey Farm, the family milked a herd on a unit near Lichfield, before acquiring Cotton Farm as an additional site in 2019. While waiting for planning permission to develop the new robotic unit (Petsey Farm) on some of Cotton Farm’s land, the family installed two robots within Cotton Farm’s existing 1960s-era infrastructure.

“It was a good learning experience,” says Richard. “The knowledge we gained and practice we had getting to grips with analysing robot data has proved to be invaluable.”

Building work for Petsey Farm began in 2021, with the first cow shed completed in December 2022. This specialist design was based on the robotic system at Nottingham University’s dairy unit.

“Everything is geared towards cow comfort, to provide the herd with free and easy access to the robots,” explains Richard. “When we moved the cows to the unit in 2022, they transitioned well and we quickly began hitting yields of 33 litres per cow per day.”

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Herd expansion

The family has just finished building the second cow shed at the Petsey site and once this is up and running they plan to have three robots and 150 milking cows in each building. “But we’ll build this up slowly during the next 12 months with a mix of home-reared heifers and bought-in cows. The idea is to time this expansion to coincide with an improving milk price.”

Cotton Farm is now used to rear youngstock, and the Lichfield unit has been dedicated to rearing the dairy beef crosses produced by the milking herd, which are taken through to finishing.

One of the other changes that the Robinson family has embraced is a data analysis programme that helps to track cow and robot performance more accurately. When cows moved into the new shed in 2022, they began using ForFarmers’ OptiRobot programme. This system analyses and sorts a wide range of robot data into reports and enables ForFarmers’ robotic performance manager, Bas Van Santan, to access the unit’s robot data remotely.

He can then highlight any issues limiting cow performance and make recommendations on how robot settings should be changed. This allows the family to make quick, responsive interventions and ensures they’re getting the most out of the cows and robots.

“Early on, for example, the OptiRobot programme identified a specific group of cows whose yields were dropping,” says Richard. “With Bas’ help we were able to quickly pinpoint an issue with the default feeding rates of the robot being too low. We adjusted the feeding curves in the robot settings and soon got the cows back on track.

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Cows are fed up to 12kg of ForFarmers’ NS (no soya) Feed2Milk Dairy MELK compound through the robots, which is complemented by a TMR comprising grass and maize silage, a bespoke protein blend, home-grown wheat, Rumi-Buff, and Lintec.

“We use CowConnect on the feeder wagon to ensure that all feed is accurately measured and allocated,” adds Richard. “We’d usually feed more maize, but our stocks are lower than anticipated this year, so we’ve had to compensate by adding wheat to the herd’s diet. As cow numbers grow, we’re reviewing our forage-growing strategy to ensure robust silage stocks in the future. Going forward we’ll increase grass hectarage on the unit by 20 hectares, and maize by 16 hectares.”

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Maternal recognition

While the cows settled quickly into their new routine at Petsey Farm, after a few months the family spotted some fertility issues.

“Conception rates fell from around 30% down to 18%, which was a significant cause for concern,” says Richard. He spoke to ForFarmers’ Roger Marley and he suggested that we feed the cows Lintec to give them an omega-3 fatty acid boost.

High levels of omega-3 fatty acids found in the product help to elevate progesterone levels and suppress prostaglandin, which are beneficial for maternal recognition of pregnancy. This helps cows to maintain their pregnancies and reduces the chance of embryo loss in the early stages, following conception.

Lintec was incorporated into the TMR from May 2023 and the Robinsons saw a reversal in fertility problems. “Average conception rate has increased to 31%, and the cows are also in good condition,” adds Richard. “As we look to breed more cows in the future, to increase numbers and fill the new shed, it’s good to know that diet ingredients will safeguard fertility.

“It’s been a long journey to get to where we are, but the whole family is pleased with how the business has developed,” he says. “Once we have the two sheds running at full capacity our focus will shift to finetuning our system and making everything run as efficiently as possible. The physical building work may be almost complete, but there’s still plenty to do.”

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